Style Mapping

Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Trailer screenshot / Public domain

A workable style formula includes three main components: Aesthetics, Personality, and Context. Personality has to do with what you love, your type of energy, and how you operate, and this is the part I most focus on in order to help you create your formula. It involves those things you feel most deeply connected with. It is a simple matter of how you “roll” — in the things you love, your kind of energy, your interests, and how you generally interact with the world. Aesthetics involves principles of design like color, line, proportion and so on. Context has to do with the background of your life such as lifestyle, geography, time, place, and personal situations that you may not control. I’ve never seen it spoken of in such terms, but I believe it has an enormous impact upon our choices.

If you’ve arrived here, you probably have some fair idea of your best lines and colors already. You also know the practical realities you live with daily. So for now, let’s fly over that part and move on to discuss what consistently brings you joy and makes you feel most self-satisfied. That will provide some very powerful clues about the person you truly are and the visual language you need to adequately represent yourself and feel good in your own skin.

What I propose is the simplest of exercises imaginable. There are more comprehensive pages on this site that will take you even deeper. But if you only want to dip a toe in for now, this will get you really, really far.

First, you need to identify what you consistently love, what attracts you, what calls to your heart. You need to own whatever it is, regardless of whether it seems to agree with your palette, style recs, or what other people think.

Step One: Collect.

“Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream . . .” Start collecting pictures of everything that reminds you of a place, a thing, a person, a moment that has ever brought you joy, thrilled your heart, left you entranced. It will be something that hits the “sweet spot” of your heart and made you feel, if only for a nanosecond, fulfilled. Go all the way back to the earliest things you can remember, all the way up to the present.

It doesn’t matter where you find images and concepts. You just need to see them all together, whether that means collecting them into a scrapbook, vision board, or file folder. (Include bits of poetry or music if that seems to hit some kind of “sweet spot” for you.)  I do not know what the things you love evoke for you. You must assess that for yourself, but here are some sample pictures with possibilities of interpretation. Click on those to see the full captions.

This process can take a few minutes, hours, or days — however long you need it to take. You’ll know when you’ve reached the end of collecting, because everything you clip or save will look like a repeat of something else.

Step Two: Analyze.

Lay all your pictures out where you can see them together. Look for similarities of elements, subjects, topics, rhythms. Are many of your pictures of animal, vegetable, or mineral? Earth, water, air, or fire? People, trees, animals, geography? Similar colors, textures, materials? Themes, moods, stillness, activity?

Is there more than one theme that seems to pop up? Group the pictures together in themes. Find the most representative pictures and eliminate the ones that seem repetitive.

Look at the pictures within each theme. What is it that speaks to you in them? Why do you love these things? What do you associate in your experiences and desires with them? Sometimes it’s very obvious. Maybe lots of your pictures have a boat in them. In fact, maybe the boats are blue or yellow but not red? Maybe you eliminated a red one from the pile because it didn’t quite strike you the ways these others do. Is there something in that? Perhaps they are floating in placid water instead of on choppy waves. Often small clues like this tell us what elements have created the overall mood that attracted us.

Most of us have never sorted out the networked pattern between the seemingly random things that we love. The fact is, it’s not that random. You are associating whatever these different themes represent with something that resonates deep within you. Keep asking yourself what and why? Write down every word that comes to mind. Try to condense those words until you get maybe three to five words that really define what’s going on inside yourself. These words reveal something that you want to have present in your life.

Step Three: Synthesize.

Once you whittle down that list, figure out how to incorporate those words into your style. What kinds of things might represent “the list” to you? I’m guessing that a couple of words hit you most strongly, and that the other words probably play a supportive role. In other words, you probably have one or two words that really define the overall feeling you are looking for, and the other words represent what you need in lesser amounts. A basic style that incorporates what we love most works as the base of our style—kind of like milk or stock works as a base in a sauce. Then, our secondary words indicate the kind of seasoning we need. They are important, because they add interest to the base. They should never overpower it, though. (The effect can look amazingly different in everyone’s combinations–very nice to behold.)

Let’s pretend a moment:

If I were that person attracted to blue or yellow boats in placid water, then I would consider whether the shapes of the boats, their colors, or the placid water were what attracted me. Did any of the elements alone attract me? Did I get the same feeling seeing that blue or yellow in a dress? What about the water–would I like it as well alone or if I were looking at a rapids?

Photo by Mike Pennington / Yellow boat, Skipidock, Lerwick/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Let’s say I decide that the boats are streamlined and that my eyes love that smoothly sculpted feeling. Am I attracted to other things that are smoothly sculpted? If so, I consider “sculpted” as a possible element I cannot do without to feel happy. Or maybe it’s neatness I admire, like the neatness of minimalism or button-down Oxford shirts. (You will have to dig really hard to understand yourself here–and that’s why this can take a little time.)

What if the blue and yellow somehow speak to me? It could be the colors themselves. I decide that I love those color so much, and why didn’t I see it before? I should be wearing them, decorating with them. Some aspect of those colors should be in everything I wear, even if it’s not obvious.

Sculpted, yellow gown. Zunec Photo par Zunec ( en possesion de dessin original) / CC BY-SA (

Maybe all of those things together really warm my heart and make me feel whole. I decide that “sculpted,” “yellow,” and the feeling of “placid water” really do it for me and make me feel embraced. Those elements turn out to be consistent in so many things I love, so I decide they must be pretty foundational. How do they make me feel? Can I put it in words? I translate the whole of it into words that can define a style: sculpted, flowing, yellow. I consider all that I associate with these elements. I think about what kinds of clothing, accessories, patterns, and details might represent some association with those words. They are hard to find in a single outfit usually. You have to be creative and pull them together out of disparate things.

Are there other themes showing up in all my pictures? If so, let’s trot them out. Define them. Do they have anything in common with the boats on placid water? Or are they something different? Perhaps they are pictures of cute things–dogs, kitties, cherubs. Are there tertiary themes that just aren’t as strong as the main two themes I can find? Maybe those are negotiable. I can disregard them in my core style mix and consider them more like spices that can be added or eliminated, as the mood strikes me.

Step Four: Experiment.

Decide which of the elements appearing in all your themes are absolutely indispensable for your style. Boil them down. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something to produce good art. What can you sacrifice and still feel represented overall, in your heart? When you absolutely can’t sacrifice anything more, you’ve probably got yourself pretty well distilled down.

Now you can experiment and see how and under what conditions your elements of theme hold up. Let’s pretend again, using the scenario from above. The elements of choice are “yellow,” “placid water,” and “sculpted.”

1st possible scenario.

Yellow: I decide to pick a yellow out of my own recommended palette. It is great and evokes my “happy” feeling. I feel at home in my skin and experience color as a satisfier.

2nd possible scenario

I chose the yellow from my own palette and it just does not work! (Or worse–I have no yellow in my palette!) It feels raucous, compared to what I was looking for. What to do…..? I cry for a minute, feeling I will never achieve the representation of my soul in clothing. I am a lost soul–hopeless! But wait a minute! I have an idea! I try using that yellow I love in smaller amounts away from my face. I even try using it tone-on-tone with the yellow that is actually in my palette, but farther from my face. Wow! I can’t believe how great this works. Problem solved!

Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

Placid water: The surface finish of buttons, accessories or fabrics can sometimes imitate the feeling of placid water. It might not even have to be blue or silver to achieve that effect. These could come in red, gold, silver, green–maybe even grey or black. Fabric can even be flowy, can’t it? It can drape or evoke soft ripples when the wind blows, just like the placid water. But what if my best lines are straight and my fabric a little stiffer? Maybe a moire fabric? There’s always a way!

So let’s run wild and create a whole outfit that is all three things at once: sculpted, yellow, and reminds us of placid water. Can we do it?

I imagine an outfit in two pieces. A sleeveless, gently fitted bodice in lemon yellow that buttons in front. The front closure is clean and sculpted, with a scalloped and top stitched edge. Buttons are white with a rippled-surface. The skirt is longish, with a straight, clean hem that ripples slightly in the breeze because the fabric is lightweight. I feel like those yellow boats in the placid water. I am home!

Step Five: Repeat and get better at it.

I had to do this lots of times before I really understood and believed my own style satisfiers. Sometimes I gave myself the same test, over and in different ways. My answers kept coming out the same, no matter how I tried to trick myself. There is a blueprint built into each of us that is simply who we are, how we roll, and how we interpret the images of the world.

Practice makes perfect. A lot of finding your style is putting on your creative hat and thinking of how to get things you love into your personal image. You might think that people will tire of seeing you in your two or three favorite style elements, but not really. Those few style elements will register unconsciously as part of your personality, sort of like your eye and hair color or the way you smile.

You might still never be what people call a “stand-out,” if truth be told. Not all beautiful coloring and styles do that and it’s just the truth. Some people’s personal image is just subtle, and they need a style that honors that. But there is beauty in subtlety. It must be loved for what it is, not for what it is not. That kind of authentic beauty is something to appreciate up close and personal. It would be the height of obscenity to place it on a supermarket shelf. If there is one thing I want you to take away, it is that you are already all that you need to be. Your dignity is to greet the world on your own terms, not on somebody else’s.

I want you to remember that. And also to realize that personal image stuff can get really tiresome if it’s all you have. I want you to find your style formula and then I want you to be able to forget about it because you know it will not go away.

No one has ever become an interesting person solely because they found a style. Find a passionate interest outside of yourself, and then your style will go with the person you are. You will become truly interesting to others when you care about someone or something besides yourself.